Role of the Literary Agent

Publishers accept manuscripts from writers to make them available in the world. With non fiction most books are commissioned after seeing an outline and a few specimen chapters. Most agents have worked as publishers and have a working knowledge of how books get out to the public.


A literary agent is not a finishing school for aspiring authors; get your manuscript finished and how you want it. A literary agent may receive hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts each week, so do not expect detailed responses to manuscripts which are not immediately taken to. Literary agents are professional workers who’s job is to earn a living for themselves and their dependents.


Agents find it demanding keeping up with the amount of reading they need to do, so be realistic about your time expectations. The agents job is to represent the individual authors they have elected to act for. An agent should be judged by the writers they represent.


The author selects the agent and ultimately has to assess whether they have the right professional expertise and if they get on with them as a person. New authors should interview three to four agents before they chose who they best get on with.


Agencies will account for all the clients money accurately and make sure the money gets to the author. The agent/agency makes to income entirely of commission on sales of their clients worker. Increasingly, agencies are charging 15% on all UK sales and 20% in US sales, although the latter percentage is shared with a subagent overseas.


The agent has a fiduciary and moral commitment to the writer and their livelihood. If the relationship is not a good one; either the author has become impossible or the agent useless – it is better to part company. No two authors want the same thing. Same want money, some want security of kinds, some just want to be published, some want to be bestseller, some do it as therapy, some because they feel they are geniuses, some to advance their careers in their day jobs. Some want to write part time, some want to write full time. No two authors make the same demands of their agents is it is good to have a communicative relationship. It is generally important to have a personal relationship than not.


Publishers can get away with never meeting their authors because they publish books, whereas agents represent human beings getting the best deal in the market-place. Most authors should submit a synopsis and two or three specimen chapters. Many publishers tell authors they will only accept submissions from agents.


Having a good website, self-publishing and self promotional activities help you stand out from the crowd. An agent will help you secure improved terms with the publishing industry. Few agents represent scholarly, professional, reference or highly illustrated works as it takes specialist knowledge.


Few agents take on poetry, memoirs or short stories, similarly there is hesitance to take on authors in their retirement when long term career prospects are reduced. A good agent with secure good terms, notably advances) and affect their commission. A good agent handles the business side of writing and needs a good knowledge of management and contracts. Be wary of agencies seeking up-front fees.


Few agents take on work outside of fiction and narrative non-fiction. Membership of the Association of Authors Agents is indicative of the literary agency’s expertise, likewise membership of the Personal Mangers Association for screenwriters and dramatists’ agents. The writers and Artists yearbook from which these notes are drawn, is a good resource to own.


The society of authors can give its members confidential advice about particular agencies and look over agency agreements. If an agency shows interest, arrange a meeting to see if you are compatible and discuss terms. Most agencies give details on their websites as to how they want to be approached. Many agents will not accept unsolicited manuscripts. As a general rule. Send a synopsis, covering letter and sample chapter, retain a copy of both and enclose return postage.

How to Get an Agent

Expect the rigorous commercial assessment of your work. It can be intense. There is nothing to prevent you from approaching publishers yourself if you have the relevant skills, resources and time. Otherwise, a good agent should:


  • Have an understanding of the publishing market and its dynamics
  • Know who are the best publishers for your book and why
  • Be financially numerate and confident of being able to negotiate the best commercial deal
  • Understand and negotiate a publishing media contract
  • Sell you and your book


Each agent will be able to offer particular things. Some will provide more editorial and creative support, some will provide help on longer term career planning, some will be subject specialists, some will be more involved in marketing and promotion.


The Approach

Make your approach professional:

  • Only approach an appropriate agent who deals with the category of book you are writing/illustrating
  • Only submit neat, typed work on single-sided A4 paper.
  • Only make an electronic submission if the agency states it accepts these.
  • Send a short covering letter with your manuscript explaining what it is, why you wrote it, what the intended audience is.
  • All information must be directly relevant to the work.


Always say if and why you are uniquely placed to write a particular book. Provide your professional credential. If you are writing an autobiography, explain why it is of public interest and why your experience sets you apart. Include a neat, typed, relevant CV and a stamped self addressed envelope for the return of your manuscript. Be prepared, you will get one chance to make an impression and if everything is nor orderly, legible and well presented you will make a poor impression.


Meeting the Agent

Be prepared to talk about your work and yourself. An agent looks for a prepossessing personality in an author and is a great asset for a publisher in terms of publicity and marketing. They will be seeking to identify how good your interpersonal and presentation skills are.



No means no – Do not pester, it will get you nowhere. Brush it off and move on, get over it, be persistent in finding an agent not bombarding one agent you have fixated on. Another agent may feel more positive; the agents who reject you may be wrong but the loss is theirs.


Do not ask for creative direction or editorial advice from an agent who has chosen not to take you on their books – this they do for their clients. If you are seeking this kind of input look for a creative writing course, writers forums and artists groups to develop in this way.


Making a Submission

The most important question about making a submission is ‘when’ ? The answer is, when it is ready. Many manuscripts are rejected for typos, bad grammar, continuity problems and plot holes. In these instances it would benefit from being put aside for weeks or months, and re-read with a critical eye. It is all about the detail – get the details right before putting the cart before the horse.


Give your manuscript the time it needs to be edited and revised, copy-read if possible. Another pair of eyes is always helpful. Do not send strings of correspondence after the first introduction to amend things, this just shows a lack of preparation, patience and professionalism. Measure twice, cut once.


Agents are busy and often loaded with reams of reading to do. The best thing you can do to stand out from the crowd is keep it simple – if you make their job easy you will get the air time your are wanting. Address the letter or email to the person. Be professional in your style ad approach, dont send gimmicks or gifts. Do some research on the publishing industry; know what it involves. You dont have to be an expert but it pays to know how the world works.


An agent specialises in an area because they gravitate towards the genre and know enough about it to represent it well. If you submit the wrong genre/type of manuscript it tells the agent you have not even bothered finding out what they represent.


Don’t speak badly of other authors in your genre, nor of businesses, agents or publishers. This is a put off and loses attention. Don’t send cover designs. Demonstrate your conviction to writing in your cover letter. Commitment and vocation are two powerful attractors.


Write about something you care passionately about. Take your time, get it how you want it. Get as much editorial feedback as you can. Revise it, revise it again, get it into a finished state. Write a cover letter which is short, concise and sensible – don’t make extravagant claims. Include anything about yourself that is relevant to your novel. The bottom line is what is in the manuscript which counts.


Don’t chase up answers from an agent for at least a few weeks after sending it. Remember that time is allocated amongst many people/tasks – a little patience helps. If you do want to chase up, read their website for guidelines on how long they expect to take before responding. Then email rather than phone.


Even if you submit a good manuscript, in a professional way, there is no guarantee of acceptance or individual feedback if representation is not being offered. Often agents or agencies are already operating at maximum capacity, so do not be disillusioned with a standard ‘rejection’ letter. If you believe in your manuscript, keep sending it out, keep learning more, persevere, put the hours in.



  • Be Arrogant; separate this from confidence
  • Make formula books; invest your life in the writing
  • Be misguided; Your family is not the best judge
  • Put several manuscripts in one pitch
  • Be offended at curt responses
  • step forward with underdeveloped work
  • Lead with negatives – be positive not self effacing


Agents bring those books they favour to the attention of the publishers they think will like them too. An agent is not essential but useful: amongst the newly published, there will be more authors with agents than without.


Agents tend to work a bit like advertising agencies in that they tend to have just one major client in each field. Competition amongst clients is not a good thing. Research the agent – knowing their past and their successes sets the stage for a good introduction.


Agents look for:

  • Talent
  • Authors who will generate more work
  • Authors who are topical
  • Books that introduce something new/different
  • Authors who are promotable/public friendly


The agent usually gets 15% of the advance so their interest is to make the best possible deal. If making an enquiry to an agency, send an email briefly outlining what you have in mind and ask who is the right person in their firm to send it to.


Make sure the submission is exactly the format which they ask for. Three chapters and a synopsis means just that; also make sure they are sequential chapters. Make sure the book has a great title, it is hugely important. Go for something that is topical, intriguing or witty and to the point.


Writing a Synopsis

This should be an outline of what kind of book you are writing, it is not about giving a detailed account of each chapter. It should start by ensuring the agent can understand what kind of writing, it is not about giving a detailed account of each chapter.


It should start by ensuring the agent can understand what kind of writing is on offer. Say which section of the bookshop your title would be stocked in and list some writers in this category. Write a blurb – think what goes on the back of most books. A book blurb must be representative of the style of book, should tempt the reader to want to know more now, and it should not give away the ending.


Organising a CV is about packaging the information which makes you an interesting proposition to a publishing house. Agents are interested in how ‘promotable’ any author is. Take an imaginative approach to your past and think creatively. Think what have you done that can be made to sound interesting ? Get other writers, readers and friends with relevant job titles to give a testimonial.


Prove the Market

Find relevant market research (local libraries), viewing figures for programmes which relate to your book, or sales of magazines that have a strong overlap with your material, sales figures for similar titles. The bottom line is that if people are buying it, agents and publishers will too.


Cover Letter

A good cover is key. It should outline everything found in the submission in concise form – what kind of book you want to publish, where you have got to, what is noteworthy of you as an individual, who else thinks so etc. Some agents acknowledge what they receive, others do not. You could ask them to email receipt or enclose a stamped self addressed envelope.